Despite Indictment, No One Is Sure Who Killed Yoel Lhanghal
Updated: Feb 23
(February 23} An Israel television Channel 12 documentary on the murder of Yoel Lhanghal, aired earlier this month, has spelled out the intricacy of the case and helped explain why only one defendant has been indicted so far – and why it is not certain that even he will be convicted of murder.
Lhanghal, a 19-year-old B’nei Menashe boy from the Lower Galilee town of Nof Hagalil whose family immigrated to Israel in late 2021, was stabbed to death in a brawl on the night of October 6 in the far northern town of Kiryat Shmonah. A video clip from a security camera positioned above the small park in which the incident took place showed him and a B’nei Menashe friend, Tsafir Haokip, battling a large group of local youngsters, mostly teenagers, while his B’nei Menashe girlfriend, Kiryat Shmonah resident Hadassah Singson whom he was visiting, cries for help. This was the second such clash of the evening, an earlier one in the same park, in which Yoel’s teeth were broken and his cheek gashed, having been dispersed by the police. One of the two assailants in the second, fatal clash who was not a minor, Liad Edri, 21, was subsequently arrested and charged with murder by a Nazareth court. A date for his trial has yet to be set.
Yoel Lhanghal’s death shocked Israel’s B’nei Menashe community, in which many rumors about it and its subsequent police investigation have circulated and left a large number of unanswered questions. Among these have been:
How did the first of the two fights break out? Who was responsible for starting it? Was racism or anti-B’nei Menashe prejudice a factor?
Why, after the first fight, did the police leave the three young B’nei Menashe in the park rather than escort them out of it and bring Yoel to a hospital?
What made the group of teenagers, reinforced and led by Edri, who was not present at the first confrontation, return to the park for a second round of fighting?
Why was Edri charged with Yoel’s murder? Why, although the video clip showed Yoel, at the bottom of the flight of stairs on which he collapsed a few seconds later, being attacked by half-a-dozen or more boys, have there been no additional arrests or indictments? Was there a cover-up designed to protect the other youngsters -- all Kiryat Shmonah boys known to the local police? And if so, was racism a factor in this, too?
The Channel 12 documentary, a gripping hour-long account of what happened on the night of October 6 and in the days of the police investigation that followed, does not definitively answer all of these questions. It does, however, clarify many of them, and it provides the viewer with a better understanding of why other questions are still unsolved. Produced and narrated for her weekly program Uvdah (“Fact”) by Ilana Dayan, Israeli TV’s leading investigative journalist, its many interviews, conducted by Dayan’s staff with policemen, lawyers, and participants in the incident and their families, provide an almost minute-by-minute account of the events that led up to and came after the murder. Here are its main findings:
1. The first of the two fights that broke out was not deliberately started by either side but resulted from a series of misunderstandings aggravated by alcohol, which had been consumed by all involved, and by hot tempers all around. These flared up when thirteen and fourteen-year-old youngsters emerging from a birthday party in a nearby community center saw Yoel and Hadassah seated on a park bench in what seemed to them an odd position, wrongly suspected Yoel of molestation, and called the police.
Before the latter could arrive, however, tensions mounted, partly sparked by Yoel, who unlike Hadassah spoke almost no Hebrew, could not communicate with the Kiryat Shmonah group, was outraged by their suspicions, and broke a car window in his anger. Both sides then called for reinforcements, the Kiryat Shmonah group for others from the party, and Yoel and Hadassah for their friend Tsafir Haokip, a a Kiryat Shmonah resident and soldier on weekend leave from his unit in the Golani Brigade. In the fist fight that broke out, Yoel and Tsafir, though outnumbered, managed to hold their own. Tsafir, who soon afterward called his commanding army officer Ron on his cell phone and kept up a running conversation with him that throws light on much of what later happened, can be heard telling him, “They broke Yoel’s teeth but I knocked four of them to the ground”.
2. There is no evidence that racism had anything to do with this first clash. The teenagers who called the police seem to have been honestly if mistakenly concerned for Hadassah and gave no sign of acting from anti-B’nei Menashe motives.
3. The police, whose senior officer, Haim Gabbai, was the father of a girl at the party, acted negligently in not taking Yoel to the hospital or at least offering him first aid. They were not, though, hostile to the three B’nei Menashe youths and chatted calmly with them and even joked with them. (“Calm down,” one of them told Yoel. “If there are any problems, I’m available. Just don’t slug anyone.”) Tsafir, it is true, seeing that the police and the teenagers were on familiar terms, told Ron over the phone, “They’re together in this, they’re together,” and said emotionally to the police, I came to this country to serve in the army and protect Israel, but you’re not helping us!” And yet if no attempt was made to arrest whoever injured Yoel, doing this would have required arresting Tsafir, too. The police appear to have been genuinely convinced that with their arrival the incident was over, and Gabbai was eager to drive his daughter home, which may have affected his judgment in not staying on the scene longer with the other policemen.
4. It is not clear why, after both the police and the Kiryat Shmonah teenagers left the scene, Yoel, Hadassah, and Tsafir chose to remain. Neither Hadassah nor Tsafir were interviewed by the Uvdah team, presumably because, as future witnesses at Edri’s trial, they were advised against it. Perhaps Hadassah was afraid to bring Yoel home to her family in his condition and they had nowhere else to go.
5. After being dispersed, the Kiryat Shmonah teenagers did not go home as the police assumed that they would. Intent on continuing the fight, they looked for others to join them and to return with them to the park. One such acquaintance they found was Liad Edri, who was reportedly told by one of them that “forty Thais” had attacked them and were beating up local children. (B’nei Menashe are frequently confused by Israelis with Thai workers, of whom there are many in Israel.) Edri then turned to a friend of his, a nineteen-year-old Druze resident of Kiryat Shmonah named Leith el-Arousi, and the two of them led a group of the teenagers back to the park.
6. When the group arrived at the park behind Edri and el-Arousi, it climbed a flight of stairs at the top of which Yoel, Tsafir, and Hadassah were seated. (Tsafir can be heard at this point worriedly telling his Golani commander, “They’re coming, they’re coming back!”). Yoel and Tsafir rose to confront them and an argument broke out in which Edri can be heard saying, “Why did you hit a child? Nobody hits children!” and Hadassah agitatedly answering, “What child? What child? Who told you that? Who?” The ensuing exchange between Edri and the two B’nei Menashe boys is inaudible, and the video camera then shows Tsafir shoving Edri, Edri striking back, and a melee breaking out in which Yoel and Tsafir are set upon by a large number of assailants.
After a few seconds, the camera shows, the melee broke up and both sides ran down the stairs, with the Kiryat Shmonah group apparently in pursuit of Yoel and Tsafir. At the bottom of the stairs, the fighting was renewed. The camera shows Tsafir off to one side, exchanging blows, while Yoel is grabbed and wrestled to the ground by half-a-dozen or more youngsters whose faces cannot be clearly made out. Several can be seen striking him with knifing motions, but no knife is actually visible. While Yoel is lying helpless on the ground, a tall figure gives him a karate kick to his midsection.
The Kiryat Shmonah group then ran off. (The only racist remark recorded during the entire incident occurred at this point, when an unidentified girl is heard saying, “Cochinis, Koreans [sic!], they’re all assholes -- f---- them all!”) Hadassah and Tsafir sought to help Yoel. “He’s been knifed in the stomach, in the stomach!” Tsafir can be heard shouting on his cell phone to Ron while Hadassah tells him to lift Yoel’s legs to ease his bleeding.
7. The police were now called again, as was an ambulance, which took Yoel to Ziv Hospital in Safed. At this point he was still alive, In a recording of a conversation between a hospital staff member and a policewoman, who was uncertain about Yoel’s identity, the staff members tells her, “He’s a foreign worker.”
8. Yoel died during the night. Several days later Liad Edri was arrested and interrogated on suspicion of Yoel’s murder. Three sets of facts incriminated him. The first was his identification in the video clip as the tall figure who kicked Yoel. The second was his being shown by other cameras to have hurried after the incident to change and hide the blood-stained or torn clothes he had been wearing. The third was his several times having worriedly telephoned Police Officer Gabbai, whose daughter’s boyfriend he had once been, in the course of the same night to inquire about Yoel’s condition. (Gabbai, who has himself been indicted on a charge of suppressing evidence, failed to report the calls to his superiors.) In both his initial interrogation and afterwards, Edri admitted having kicked Yoel but denied having knifed him or having possessed a knife at the time of the incident.
9. Complicating the investigation was the existence of a second suspect, a Kiryat Shmonah boy referred to only as “the kid” because he is a fourteen-year-old minor. The “kid,” the police learned after having arrested Edri, fled the scene of the murder while being heard to say, “I stabbed the son-of-a-bitch, I stabbed the son-of-a-bitch!” He then went to the home of an older boy and handed him a knife, which the older boy said he buried in a field. (Searches for it have failed to find it.) Upon being questioned by the police, the “kid” retracted his boast and denied being the stabber and claimed to have been given the knife after the brawl by someone else. In the course of his interrogation, he twice changed his story of whom this “someone else” was and finally, pressured by the police to incriminate Liad Edri, said it was he. As of now, no legal action has been taken against him.
What emerges from the Channel 12 documentary is a complicated picture. On the one hand, there is teenage drinking and violence, police incompetence, a cruel ganging up on unarmed boy who is brutally knifed and kicked when he is down and wounded. These are things that, though none of them should come as a surprise to Israelis who know their society, are highly disturbing.
Yet at the same time, it needs to be said clearly: the documentary gives no reason to believe that the incident was a racist one or that the police, apart from Haim Gabbai’s failure to report Liad Edri’s phone calls, tried to cover anything up. Despite the ample documentation of the security cameras and Tsafir Haokip’s cell phone, the difficulties facing their investigation were genuine: the absence of a murder weapon, the blurred faces of Yoel’s assailants in the video clip, the existence of two suspects instead of just one, the conflicting stories told by the dozens of questioned teenagers. Yes, Liad Edri went out of his way to change his clothes after the murder as someone afraid of being accused of it might do,but as his lawyer Tsiyon Shim’on told an interviewer, “Liad was stressed out by the kick he had given” – which, delivered to Yoel’s bleeding stomach, could indeed have been interpreted as a death blow. Yes, the “kid” openly claimed he was the stabber, but as his lawyer, Yahli Sterling, sought to explain it, “Kids of his age are always boasting of things they haven’t done. They want to be in on the the action.”
The issue of anti-B’nei Menashe racism, which has been raised repeatedly in the wake of Yoel Lhanghal’s murder, is a painful one. Yet precisely because it is, it behooves everyone to be cautious about raising it. Not only is there no evidence of it being behind Yoel’s murder, there is no evidence that most B’nei Menashe have experienced it in Israel – or at least, that they have experienced it in any but trivial ways such as every group of immigrants to this country has had to face. Until Yoel’s death, indeed, racism against them was rarely discussed by them, and while this can be interpreted as a sign of the issue's repression, it can equally be taken to mean that it was not a matter of great concern. Only a thorough survey can tell us how serious an issue it is.
Until such a survey is conducted, it would be best not to generalize. The Knesset’s Committee on Aliyah and Aborption has announced a special session, to be held on March 13, on the subject of “The absorption and integration of the B’nei Menashe of India, the racism from which they suffer, and the government’s dealing with this issue in the light of the murder of Yoel Lhanghal.” But how much do the B’nei Menashe suffer from racism? If the answer is, “Not at all,” or “Only slightly,” or “Not in significant ways,” there can be no greater disservice to them than to convince them of the opposite. The last thing Israel’s B’nei Menashe need to be told is that they are not wanted in Israel when in fact most Israelis are happy to have them. Those who tell them this without proof may have different motives for doing so, one of which is to say: “If you are not succeeding as well as you should, don’t blame yourselves, the government or any specific organization for failing you -- blame Israeli racism for holding you back!” This is a tempting statement, especially if you are speaking for the government or a specific organization. It doesn’t necessarily make it justified.